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Are “Man Colds” Actually a Real Thing?

Provided by Robitussin®

“I’M DYING!” *Calls in to request a week of sick leave and collapses in bed.*

man covering with blanket

You don’t have to be a doctor—as long as you're a woman living on Earth, there's a good chance you're qualified to diagnose at least one curious "medical" phenomenon: the Man Cold, also known as the harrowing epidemic of some grown men acting like absolute babies when they’re sick. Many women would agree there's a marked difference in the way they handle their illnesses (i.e. taking Robitussin at the onset of cough and cold symptoms and soldiering on) and the dramatic, over-the-top suffering that seems to characterize the Man Cold.

Alright, so maybe you've seen a man feel the first scratch of a sore throat and tell you he's about to die, but have you ever thought that men may have been getting stereotyped unfairly? Could it be possible that a man's seeming exaggeration of his cold and flu symptoms is actually based in a biological reality?

One doctor sought to find out by doing a review in 2017 of scientific research conducted around men, women, and the differences in their responses to the common cold and the flu. Kyle Sue, a general practitioner and clinical assistant professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, found that there may be a legitimate reason that men seem to respond differently to the flu than women do. The key is in how these two sexes actually have different immune responses to being sick.

"All of the evidence seems to show that there is a difference in the immune system between men and women as it responds to all types of infections, not just respiratory ones," Sue says of what he saw in the existing studies. They suggest that women, prior to menopause, may have stronger immune responses to the flu (meaning: they are able to fight it off faster) than men due to higher levels of estrogen in their bodies. A World Health Organization report from 2010, which was included in Sue's review, states definitively that men and women around the world respond differently to viruses, possibly due to a combination of genetic and hormonal factors. However, more research needs to be done into exactly how these factors play in.

There are also sex-based differences in mortality and the flu. Sue found that women are more likely to die during a pandemic like SARS, but men are more likely to die because of a common cold or flu. However, the reasons for the higher rate of male mortality are hard to isolate.

"In terms of the higher death rate, is that because men are less likely to go to the doctor?" Sue says. "We have robust evidence that men are way less likely to seek medical help. Are they just going to see the doctor way too late and that's why they're dying more from common infections? That, we don't know."

So where does that leave us? There needs to be more robust research before we can say with scientific proof that men experience worse cold and flu symptoms, even if anecdotally you’ve witnessed the men in your own life suffering (or “suffering”). In the meantime, stock up on tissues and cough medicine, and send the men in your life this next time one of you is sick:

Find other great health and wellness stories at Shape.com/Strive.